Thought leadership | Feb 26 2018

“Youth social action must live or die by its outcomes” – our plan to change the world.

At Generation Change we want to see social action – doing good things for other people – become a normal part of growing up: something that everyone does and benefits from. We believe we have a historic opportunity to see such a change happen within a generation – this generation. Here is our plan to make it happen.

Welcome to the age of giving a damn (5 – 25 years old)

Young people today have never had so much appetite to do good in the world. They are more likely to volunteer, and they care more about social issues than any other generation before them – a trend that is already transforming graduate recruitment and the way that brands seek to engage them as customers.

This shift is not an anomaly – it’s seismic. The old consensus about how the world should work is broken. Citizens have lost faith in the power of consumerism to make the world a better place – and it is increasingly clear that social purpose will be what drives economic success in the 21stCentury.

And thank goodness, because the world young people are inheriting is in bad shape. This generation will come of age in a world defined by rising inequality, a deepening crisis of social isolation and loneliness, and the threats of climate change, technological disruption, and economic change.

Solving these challenges is where all of the most rewarding jobs and new business will come from in the coming decades. This means we will fail our young people if we do not equip them with change-making skills from an early age. The ability to make a positive difference in the world is no longer a nice to have. We need all young people to be given high quality experiences of taking part in social action. It’s a necessity.

So what can be done?

The UK falls far behind other developed nations when it comes to how far social action has been embedded into public life – with lower overall levels of volunteering, fewer programmes that get recognised by employers, and a poor legal framework for supporting more committed forms of civic activism. Only recently has the UK caught up with America, Germany and France to establish a national citizen service scheme.

In 2012, Generation Change took a long hard look at the history of efforts to promote volunteering and social action in the UK. At the time, 3 successive prime ministers had started a flagship volunteering initiative by scrapping its predecessor – the most recent, in 2013, being a small pilot scheme called National Citizen Service (NCS). Over decades, we charted a sorry history of millions of pounds being spent on volunteering schemes that did not last.

Even the #iwill campaign, launched by the Prince of Wales in 2013, made the same call to action he had made 40 years earlier. And the UK is not shifting the needle on young people’s participation in social action, despite a renewed focus, and climate of political will under #iwill, a campaign that will come to a close in just 3 years time.

We needed to start thinking differently.

We brought together the UK’s leading charities and social enterprises that deliver youth social action activities, and asked ourselves a radical question: what would it take – what will it actually take – to make what we do more common in society? Forget whether your own organisation will be here tomorrow.

This is the power of collaboration. When leaders can stop thinking about the hoops they have to jump through in the here and now to win funding and survive – we start to see a bigger picture about how the market is working. We can see the rules of the game, and how to make them better.

Here is what we realised….

Youth social action will only reach a tipping point in the UK once it is easy to know what good looks like – and once we are all pursuing the same understanding of what good means.

Why is this the case?

Firstly, because we know that young people need the right kind of support, encouragement, tools and approaches in order to get inspired by social action. But it is currently difficult to truly know what “the right kind” is, which means that a lot of the decision-making that shapes how social action gets funded and delivered is poorly informed.

And secondly, because this is how any other market has gone from being niche to being mainstream.

Once the rules of the game of football were written down in 1863, towns and villages could finally start playing the same sport – we could all know what a good game of football looks like. After the dot-com bubble crash, investors learned what the real drivers of value were in new tech companies. Knowing what good looks like in digital technology made it possible for it to scale.

The same thinking is what went into growing the market for “ethically produced goods” – through Fairtrade. Or growing the market for social purpose business with the B-Corporation movement. In each case, the tipping point comes once it’s easy to know what we mean by ‘good’.

Social action will grow once we build the currency for best practice.

This sounds easy enough to agree on – but believe us, it’s not.

Here is why it should be simple. The number one reason young people decide to take part in social action is because they see the benefits for themselves and for other people. And when asked, most young people who do not currently volunteer say that what would motivate them to take part is if they could see the benefits – not just to themselves, but the difference they could make to other people.

This is why we define social action by the outcomes it seeks to achieve – what we call the “double benefit” model. Because outcomes are the starting point, and the end point, for why anyone takes part.

Social action lives or dies by its outcomes.

That is why we need to know what good looks like: because young people need to know what good looks like. This is the simple but powerful idea that should sit at the heart of everything we do.

But here is why it’s hard for people to get behind that idea.

Many people believe it is too difficult to know what outcomes young people’s social action achieves. We disagree. If we are not serious about measuring and evidencing the impact that young people have through our programmes and activities – we are failing to live up to the promise we give them when they sign up. It’s false trading.

Others might say that no two kinds of social action are alike, and therefore it’s no use trying to compare apples with oranges. But the reality is: there’s not two types we have to compare – it’s more likely to be 40 emails in a teacher’s inbox that they have to choose from; all offering some kind of social action activity for their young people. How can anyone decide if they don’t know what good looks like?

And finally, we often encounter advocates for social action who genuinely aren’t interested in outcomes. As long as young people are doing something, they reason, that’s good.

Well that is not how we see things at Generation Change. And it’s not how young people see things – which is ultimately why it is self-defeating. Show us the cheapest, most scalable method for young people to do social action, but if it offers no benefit for those who take part, and does not achieve meaningful social change – then it is less than pointless: it is a waste of everyone’s time.

Social action lives or dies by its outcomes... but outcomes do not always drive the decision-making – and that’s a problem.

Until a majority of funders, youth practitioners, teachers, and other key brokers for young people's social action can truly base their decision making on pursuing a double benefit for those who take part – the market for social action will not grow. It will always be a peripheral activity, that appeals to some young people but not all, where the impact is incidental or unpredictable rather than the name of the game.

We want to change the game. We want to align funding and delivery around the same pursuit: outcomes.

This is our plan.

Generation Change is on a mission to build the market for social action in the UK – by making sure that outcomes drive decision-making.

  • Starting this year, we are launching a pathway for new organisations to join our partnership – by taking part in a rigorous evaluation and improvement pathway that we call the Impact Accelerator. This 12-month scheme will help practitioners to adopt a shared impact framework, which they can then use to drive learning about their outcomes.
  • We will build a powerful membership network to support delivery organisations to continually improve what they do over time.
  • We will codify and share best practice for anyone to use, in any setting, for free – check out our Insights Hub, which is just the beginning of a learning portal that can demystify what good looks like and how to do social action well.
  • We will then make it easier for funders and other audiences to identify and work with delivery organisations who are driving learning and best practice. In time, Generation Change will seek to establish common metrics that enable us to set benchmarks and key indicators of success – that can start to determine how youth programmes get funded, delivered and replicated across the country.

Yes it's ambitious, but we're not alone.

These aren’t the ideas of a few individuals, or one organisation – they are the result of the deep-rooted partnership of our Founding Members over 4 years.

A range of practitioners across our partnership committed themselves to an on-going spirit of openness and collaboration, putting aside their own ego, to keep looking at the wider picture. The solutions we have developed have been piloted, painstakingly, with research partners who came to the same realisation about the importance of evidence for shaping practice.

We worked with a brave group of pilot organisations to develop the Impact Accelerator. The scheme draws on the lived experience of delivery organisations.

So a lot of learning has come together already. But we have a long way to go, and we will need everyone to pull this off. We are now looking for like-minded individuals and organisations to join our partnership.

Will you join us?

Want to deliver or fund social action activities better? Join our Impact Accelerator

Just want to learn more? Start using our Insights Hub and sign up for regular newsletters.

Want to partner with us to build best practice in youth social action? Get in touch.

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